Friday, December 30, 2016

November & December Reads: Dangerous Girls

The Winner's Trilogy: The Curse, The Crime, and The Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

Synopsis:  Winning what you want may cost you everything you love
They were never meant to be together. As a general's daughter, seventeen-year-old Kestrel enjoys an extravagant and privileged life. Arin has nothing but the clothes on his back. Then Kestrel makes an impulsive decision that binds Arin to her. Though they try to fight it, they can't help but fall in love. In order to be together, they must betray their people . . . but to be loyal to their country, they must betray each other.

Set in a new world, this  is a story of rebellion, duels, ballroom dances, wicked rumors, dirty secrets, and games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

My take: I read the first two of these books as they came out, starting in 2014. The third I bought in April of this year, but decided not to read it until I was ready to read all three straight through like one big, juicy novel.

The world building was well done and believable. It was a pretty complex world with multiple settings among multiple classes of people. Never once did I feel Rutkoski just changed a few names and places to make it seem like a different setting. Each setting was unique and woven into the story with deftness. Her use of a game to bring out characterization and class was well done.

The writing and voice were well above average. The story arc was not a traditional happily-ever-after, which made the ending realistically satisfying.

Kestrel is an unusual heroine and a deeply flawed one. It's easy not to like her throughout most of the first book, and yet you want to know more about her. (Of course, I always like unlikable heroines, so I'm not the most reliable source on this point.) She begins to come into her own in the second book, and by the third you're rooting for her all the way.  Her journey is ultimately one we'd like to imagine for our better selves. Arin, the love interest, is a perfect foil and much more relatable. One might be tempted to call their romance a perfect role reversal.

If graphic violence bothers you, this book describes some and implies a lot more. There is some PG-rated sexual contact.

The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid

Synopsis: Red Queen meets The Hunger Games in this epic novel about what happens when the galaxy’s most deadly weapon masquerades as a senator’s daughter and a hostage of the galactic court.

A Diabolic is ruthless. A Diabolic is powerful. A Diabolic has a single task: Kill in order to protect the person you’ve been created for.

Nemesis is a Diabolic, a humanoid teenager created to protect a galactic senator’s daughter, Sidonia. The two have grown up side by side, but are in no way sisters. Nemesis is expected to give her life for Sidonia, and she would do so gladly. She would also take as many lives as necessary to keep Sidonia safe.

My take: So many books are compared to The Hunger Games. Even I do it in some reviews. Sigh. This book did not particularly remind me of The Hunger Games. If pressed, I'd go with Game of Thrones, but mercifully shorter. And SPOILER ALERT1: I guessed (before the author acknowledged it in the afterword) that this novel was based on I, Claudius. GO ME!

Again, like Kestrel, Nemesis is an unusual heroine. There are twists and betrayals, lies and back stabbings, and more betrayals. Some reviewers thought the romance got in the way; SPOILER ALERT 2: I thought Nemesis and Tyrus, the deranged nephew of the current Emperor, made the perfect power couple.

Whatever! I liked the novel. A lot. It's a compelling blend of real science fiction (space ships and robots) and dystopia. The world building was incredible and might spark a trilogy or series. Thank god, the ending didn't hang on a continuation, because it made it possible for me to have a completely satisfying read.

Three Dark Crowns Kendare Blake

Synopsis: Fans of acclaimed author Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood will devour her latest novel, a dark and inventive fantasy about three sisters who must fight to the death to become queen.

In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born: three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions.

But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins.

The last queen standing gets the crown.

My take: This book came up a lot on my suggested reads. I resisted for awhile for reasons unknown to me, but this month I bought it after taking a quick read of the sample Look Inside. The world building was done well enough, and I really liked the magic system. However, if you're looking for female empowerment, this ain't your book. Moreover, the Queens didn't seem all that different from each other except for their magical powers.

Still, the story pulled me through to the end. Where I discovered it was another trilogy. Arghh! The story isn't compelling enough to entice me into buying another book,

The Jewel Series by Amy Ewing

The Selection meets The Handmaid's Tale in this darkly riveting debut filled with twists and turns, where all that glitters may not be gold.

The Jewel means wealth, the Jewel means beauty—but for Violet, the Jewel means servitude. Born and raised in the Marsh, Violet finds herself living in the Jewel as a servant at the estate of the Duchess of the Lake. Addressed only by her number—#197—Violet is quickly thrown into the royal way of life. But behind its opulent and glittering facade, the Jewel hides its cruel and brutal truth, filled with violence, manipulation, and death.

My take: Yes, it really is the Selection meets The Handmaid's Tale, but it's quite good readable for all that. Like The Winner's Trilogy, I had read one book, and then I read all three back-to-back. Violet's character arc is compelling and believable, although the narrative makes too many characters into victims. At least it's not just the good characters who are victimized. The evil Duchess of the Lake is as much a victim and trapped by her world as any of the girls who are forced into providing heirs for the members of the Jewel.

As I said, I liked the book. It's not as compelling as The Winner's Trilogy, but it was a satisfying read for a cold December weekend.

Passage by Connie Willis

Synopsis: One of those rare, unforgettable novels that are as chilling as they are insightful, as thought-provoking as they are terrifying, award-winning author Connie Willis's Passage is an astonishing blend of relentless suspense and cutting-edge science unlike anything you've ever read before.

It is the electrifying story of a psychologist who has devoted her life to tracking death. But when she volunteers for a research project that simulates the near-death experience, she will either solve life's greatest mystery -- or fall victim to its greatest terror.

At Mercy General Hospital, Dr. Joanna Lander will soon be paged -- not to save a life, but to interview a patient just back from the dead. A psychologist specializing in near-death experiences, Joanna has spent two years recording the experiences of those who have been declared clinically dead and lived to tell about it.

It's research on the fringes of ordinary science, but Joanna is about to get a boost from an unexpected quarter. A new doctor has arrived at Mercy General, one with the power to give Joanna the chance to get as close to death as anyone can.

A brilliant young neurologist, Dr. Richard Wright has come up with a way to manufacture the near-death experience using a psychoactive drug. Dr. Wright is convinced that the NDE is a survival mechanism and that if only doctors understood how it worked, they could someday delay the dying process, or maybe even reverse it. He can use the expertise of a psychologist of Joanna Lander's standing to lend credibility to his study.

But he soon needs Joanna for more than just her reputation. When his key volunteer suddenly drops out of the study, Joanna finds herself offering to become Richard's next subject. After all, who better than she, a trained psychologist, to document the experience?

Her first NDE is as fascinating as she imagined it would be -- so astounding that she knows she must go back, if only to find out why this place is so hauntingly familiar. But each time Joanna goes under, her sense of dread begins to grow, because part of her already knows why the experience is so familiar, and why she has every reason to be afraid....

And just when you think you know where she is going, Willis throws in the biggest surprise of all -- a shattering scenario that will keep you feverishly reading until the final climactic page is turned.

My take: Let me be clear: Passage is one of the most compelling books I've ever read. There are several chapters (in that shattering scenario) that might be some of the most brilliant writing from a contemporary author.

I first read this book when it came out in 2009 on the recommendation of a friend. I often bring it up when talking about the "art of writing" with my fellow writers, because of those chapters I mentioned in the previous paragraph. Therefore, I felt compelled to reread the novel to see if it had withstood the test of time. (Because some books don't. I was a big D.H. Lawrence fan in high school and college, but rereading Women in Love in my late 30's was a huge disappointment.)

Passage held up. I didn't find myself  skipping huge sections, and the ending was still brilliant. If you're looking for a read that sticks with you, Passage might be it.

If you like it, I also suggest you read Willis's The Doomsday Book.